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Women’s Health Initiative

Risk of death, stroke in postmenopausal women using antidepressants

Older women taking antidepressants could be at increased risk of stroke and death according to the authors of the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) study. Cardiologist Nanette K. Wenger, MD, professor of medicine, division of cardiology, Emory School of Medicine, and chief of cardiology at Grady Memorial Hospital, is a co-author of the study published in the Dec. 14 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine.

Nanette K.Wenger, MD

Nanette K.Wenger, MD

The researchers report that postmenopausal women who reported taking an antidepressant drug had a small but statistically significant increase in the risk of stroke and of death compared with participants not taking antidepressants. They say the results of the study are not conclusive but do signify a need for additional attention to patients’ cardiovascular risk factors.

Depression is a serious illness with increased risk for cardiovascular disease and other health risks. The researchers stress that no one should stop taking their prescribed medication based on this one study as antidepressants have been proven lifesaving for some patients. Because of their potential for negative effects on heart function, tricyclic antidepressants are used less frequently. In contrast, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressants have fewer side effects in general and are known to have aspirin-like effects on bleeding, which doctors say could protect against clot-related cardiovascular disorders.

Since the use of antidepressants has increased greatly in recent years and since older women are also at risk for cardiovascular disease, a team of researchers from several academic medical centers examined the link between antidepressant use and cardiovascular disease in such patients.

The WHI study followed more than 160,000 postmenopausal women in the United States for up to 15 years, examining risk factors for and potential preventive measures against cardiovascular disease, cancer and osteoporosis.

The authors call for additional research, says Wenger, because the study does not confirm whether this risk truly is attributable to the drugs and not to depression itself and whether participants were being treated for depression or for anxiety, which also has cardiovascular risks. Above all, patients should talk with their physicians about individual concerns and risk factors to determine the benefits of various treatment options, Wenger notes.

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